Basically by happenstance, I ended up reading first Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, then Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. The coincidence was convenient, since Nietzsche so clearly influenced Freud. The most striking difference between the two is probably that Nietzsche’s book is inspiring, whereas Freud’s is completely bananas. I would start here with Freud, for instance:

It is as though primal man had the habit, when he came in contact with fire, of satisfying an infantile desire connected with it, by putting it out with a stream of his urine. The legends that we possess leave no doubt about the originally phallic view taken of tongues of flame as they shoot upwards. Putting out fire by micturating—a theme to which modern giants, Gulliver in Lilliput and Rabelais’ Gargantua, still hark back—was therefore a kind of sexual act with a male, an enjoyment of sexual potency in a homosexual competition. The first person to renounce this desire and spare the fire was able to carry it off with him and subdue it to his own use. By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitation, he had tamed the natural force of fire.

(Kindle Locations 649-654)


I call this out because the book is actually fascinating and worth reading, and I’m inspired to read other books of Freud’s (maybe Beyond the Pleasure Principle?). The man is clearly influential, but this sort of thing is obviously bonkers to a modern reader. I reason that either this urine/fire idea makes perfect sense in context — in which case I want to read the context — or it was completely bonkers even at the time, in which case Freud’s influence over early-20th-century culture says fascinating things about that culture.

The story of this book is probably familiar to everyone. Society demands that certain human instincts — those toward violence and sexual conquest — be suppressed. This social control eventually becomes a part of the mind itself: the superego is essentially the voice of society, policing the ego from inside the mind. The superego is the seat of guilt and shame.

Nietzsche says very much the same thing, though without Freud’s sexual basis. What Freud calls a ‘superego’, Nietzsche calls ‘bad conscience’. Bad conscience is a creation of the strong, imposed on the weak. The strong construct a society from oceans of blood — hammering together the weak over centuries until a bad conscience forms within them and they police themselves.

Bad conscience — the ethical teaching of nearly all civilizations — is the resentment of the weak directed toward the strong. The strong demonstrate that what is prized in this world is power, domination, wealth, and selfishness; the weak resentfully reply with an ethical system that says what is truly good is universal brotherhood, poverty, and altruism. (Nietzsche says that, among others, the Jews invented this ethics of the weak.)

This story of Nietzsche’s is filled with far more love toward humanity than I would have guessed from how people usually talk about him. The Genealogy of Morals is an exuberant book that marvels at the grandness of life; it laments the cramped, impoverished ethics of the weak that conceals our vast humanity. We could be so much, says Nietzsche, if our ethics didn’t cause us to cower and trudge through life.

I can see where the “superman” comes out of this. The superman isn’t bound by the stultifying ethics of the weak. You can see how this could go in a positive direction and a negative one, and you can understand why the Nietzschean superman is mostly held in low esteem. Watch Hitchcock’s excellent movie Rope, for instance, based on the Leopold and Loeb murders. A thinker like Nietzsche is arguably responsible for the lessons that everyone, murderers included, takes from his work. But I could just as easily see the Nietzschean superman as a liberator — the man who sweeps across the modern world, freeing it from the shackles that bad conscience has imposed on it. The superman realizes that bad conscience (superego) is a tool of control imposed by the strong. The superman is living life more fully than we are. (Hard to tell whether Nietzsche views a Napoléon or a Genghis Khan as a superman.)

Read in the right way, all of this can in fact be inspiring. I don’t fully understand the jump from Nietzsche to Freud, which is why I need to read more of the latter. Among the methods of control that bad conscience imposes is sexual repression … but even here, I can’t quite see the leap. Somewhere Freud notes that there’s a conflict between the needs of society and the needs of the family; romantic love makes us turn inward, focusing only on our nearest and dearest, while society demands engagement with the broader world. So society channels our sexual desires into acceptable forms, like marriage (community-sanctioned sexual love). And the community’s need for cleanliness (to prevent disease, etc.) leads each of us to be obsessed with bathing and with the avoidance of feces; hence the Freudian “anal” stage of development. But Freud takes it as an obvious next step, somewhere in C&ID, that there is a stage of “anal erotism” — hence, I assume, our modern phrase “anal retentive,” to mean someone who never moves beyond the societally imposed stage of obsessing over feces and cleanliness. I assume he explains this argument more fully elsewhere; certainly all of the citations in Civilization and Its Discontents point (in the manner of all cranks) to other works by the same author, so I assume he goes into anal erotism more fully elsewhere.

Like I said, this is fascinating either because it’s well-argued, in which case the arguments themselves are fascinating; or because it’s not well-argued, in which case the society which adored Freud is fascinating.

I’m also interested in Freud for the same reason I’m interested in the 1950s: because I suspect that our stereotypes of his era are wildly overstated. We characterize the 50s as an era of repression and forcible consensus that exploded in the 60s, and we believe that Freudian neurosis is the natural result of Victorian repression. Both of these things could well be true; but it’s also completely possible that the 1950s were a period of creative flourishing that we only noticed in the next decade (see Halberstam’s The Fifties for this argument), and that Freud was a singular writer who would have dominated the thought of his era, whether or not that era was especially repressed.

Both Freud and Nietzsche are clearly strongly influenced by Darwin. The primitive man residing inside each of us is assumed to be brutal and sexually acquisitive. This particular view of man is quite widespread, and every sociopath you know likely defends all his (I use ‘his’ advisedly) retrograde gender-equity notions as the dictates of natural selection. It’s a limited, depressing view of man’s nature. Nowadays you can read academic refutations of this idea in, say, Robert Axelrod’s Evolution of Cooperation, which wonderful writers like Samuel Bowles turn into a theory of “homo reciprocans.” But these are rarefied discussions, and I suspect that most people believe in the nasty, brutish primitive man.

If early man was not as violent — with instincts that didn’t need to be as forcibly repressed — as Nietzsche and Freud make him out to be, then what becomes of their story? In Axelrod’s model, altruism can arise naturally whenever we expect to interact with someone repeatedly. What if Axelrod is right and Nietzsche is wrong? Then our kind attitudes toward our neighbors, and even toward strangers, are not the resentful constructs of a slave people; they are baked into primitive man. If early man wasn’t a sociopath, and didn’t need to be beaten into submission, then much of Genealogy of Morals would fall away. What would remain is an exuberant plea to live a passionate life, but much of the explanation for why we don’t already live that life would be hollowed out. I’ve not decided yet how much of Freud’s book would disappear, but that’s mostly because I (in a fascinated way) haven’t yet figured out what led him to many of his conclusions.

The next steps from here, I think, go in a couple directions. One is to work backwards, to Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and T.H. Huxley. The other is to dig more deeply into Freud, and maybe more into Nietzsche. Perhaps humorously, Freud’s arguments are so bananas that they’re inspiring me to read more of him. Is this how cranks and cult leaders get started? It’s much like the old definition of an optimist: the guy who comes to a room filled floor to ceiling with horse shit, and excitedly starts digging away with a shovel, on the theory that there must be a pony in there somewhere.